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Kyle Potter, Published December 17 2013

Fargo Ten Commandments monument case awaiting action in US appeals court

FARGO – More than a decade on, the legal battle over the Ten Commandments monument outside the Civic Center here continues.

The Red River Freethinkers’ case against the city is in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – yet again – awaiting an oral argument schedule or a judge’s decision on whether the monument should be removed. The group’s attorney, Bruce Schoenwald, said that could come in a month or so.

Given to the city by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the 1950s, the monument has stood outside City Hall since 1961.

The push by the Freethinkers – a group of local atheists and agnostics – to have the monument removed has taken several forms and jumped from one court to another since a handful of group members, including former Fargo Mayor Jon Lindgren, filed suit in 2002. They argued that the Ten Commandments’ presence in front of City Hall was a violation of the necessary separation of church and state.

In 2005, U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Erickson ruled that the monument could remain on city property because it celebrates religious and secular ideals.

Monument move nixed

But the current case stems from a separate issue. The City Commission, mulling the possibility of more legal headaches, considered moving the monument to private property in 2007. When monument supporters got wind, they circulated a petition to ban the city from moving any monument that’s been on city property for 40-plus years.

Citing the will of the majority, the City Commission ditched its plan to move the monument and approved the new policy. Commissioners also denied the Freethinkers’ request to put nearby its own monument, which would have read: “The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

The Freethinkers again challenged the city in U.S. District Court, arguing that the City Commission effectively adopted the religious views of the petitioners.

After the case was dismissed and then remanded to district court, Erickson again sided with Fargo earlier this year.

“The court continues to believe that no objective observer could perceive the city as adopting or endorsing the religious message in the display,” he wrote.

The Freethinkers again appealed to the 8th Circuit, where it has sat awaiting an oral argument date since August.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502